Lou Barlow : Interview
“Coming from hardcore punk rock I really believed in simplicity. I thought things were more interesting the simpler they were.”

After spending years listening to and analyzing someone’s songs, it’s often surreal to hear them pick up a phone and say hello. Even more surreal for me (as an ardent Lou Barlow enthusiast through his work with Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh, The Folk Implosion, and his solo material) was the experience of hearing Barlow ask me to hold on a second before we started the interview so he could oblige his young daughter in spraying WD-40 on a squeaky door hinge in their home.

It was disarming to hear such a lovingly playful exchange between a father and his daughter while I was hooking up my tape recorder, but in a way, it was fitting. After all, aggressive honesty and heart-on-sleeve earnestness is Barlow’s trademark. And as evidenced while revisiting the lo-fi, home-recorded Weed Forestin’, Barlow’s first big step out of the Dinosaur Jr. shadow, it’s a quality upon which he’s based his songwriting career. Originally released on cassette in 1987 under the name Sentridoh, the collection of songs went on to form the building block for what would become Sebadoh, as well as laying a foundation for his solo material. Weed Forestin’ has been through the record label wood chipper over the years, released under separate artist names and crammed in with other songs as parts of compilations. Barlow is re-releasing the restored collection now, selling it directly, and including a slew of previously unreleased goodies.

Barlow is also recording a new Dinosaur Jr. album, preparing new Sebadoh material and, well, doing a little bit of work around the house. He took a little time out to talk to Tiny Mix Tapes about what’s going on in his life these days.

Weed Forestin’ has gone through so many iterations over the years. Why are you putting out the “definitive” release now?
It just seemed time to do it. I always wanted to do it because when I went through the process of having it mastered [for the original label release] it ended up sounding significantly worse than the source tapes because I didn’t really know how to get things mastered properly. The people I worked with were very disdainful of handing a cassette to somebody and saying, “Hey, I wanna make a record out of this.” It was kind of a radical concept, apparently.

So when the record that came out, there was a considerable amount of surface noise that was not on the original recording. The record itself did seem to make an impression on people in my life. I did meet a few people because of that record. I met Max Wood, who is co-releasing the record with me now. I don’t know how old he was when he heard it, maybe 18 or 19. It made a big impression on him. When I met him and we became friends he told me how important the record was to him. As our friendship evolved [we discussed] the concept of us releasing it together and doing it properly. He was really into it because it was an important piece of music for him, and for me it was really my first record.

To me, lo-fi more accurately recreates how music really sounds when you’re hearing it.

It seems like the time period in which Weed Forestin’ was recorded would have been an interesting one for you. This was around the time Dinosaur Jr. was picking up steam, and soon would picking up even more with the release of You’re Living All Over Me. What was your head space like at the time?

I think I started recording the record just after high school. I was in Dinosaur Jr. and witnessing [guitarist] J Mascis writing the first two Dinosaur records. I was just witnessing this peer of mine exploding creatively in writing these really ambitious songs. He had a lot of creative ambition and also a lot of just ambition. He got us shows in New York and he made friends with Gerard Cosloy when they were going to school together. Gerard’s the one who signed us to Homestead Records and he later went on to do Matador.

I had always written my own songs but I tried a little harder. They weren’t on the same scale that J was writing. He was writing these incredible rock band songs, but at the time I was listening to a lot of Joni Mitchell. Coming from hardcore punk rock I really believed in simplicity. I thought things were more interesting the simpler they were.

I loved really dramatic music then. I listened to a lot of outright, really intense noise bands, like Swans and the very first Jesus & Mary Chain record, which was just blankets of screeching noise but with really simple songs underneath. That was pretty incredible. It was a cool time. I listened to a lot of extremes. I was obsessed with Tammi Wynett. But then I was in a cool hipster band and we were taking our parents’ station wagon to New York and playing with Pussy Galore, Sonic Youth, and Scratch Acid.

So the cassette was recorded in your parents’ basement. Recording at home seems like a common practice for you. Didn’t you record your later solo work in a home context as well?

With Emoh [Barlow’s 2005 solo album] it would be stuff I recorded at home and then I would bring it to a studio to mix it. I’ve always felt more comfortable at home.

Dinosaur were beginning our first studio records [around the time of Weed Forestin’] and I found studios to be really uncomfortable. It just felt really unnatural. So for me to be comfortable writing my own songs I had to start at home and Weed Forestin’ is really the beginning… ground zero of writing songs I though other people should hear. It was the beginning of stepping out a little bit and thinking I was saying something that would be interesting for someone else to hear.

Nowadays, with fairly clean recording technology readily available to most everyone at a far cheaper price point than in the past, the “lo-fi sound” has become a stylistic aesthetic rather than a by-product of technical necessity. As someone who was at the forefront of tape-washed lo-fi, how do you feel when you hear new bands who choose that style?

I’m really happy about it because I think it sounds better. It doesn’t bother me when people say, “Oh, they’re trying to sound lo-fi.” I’m like, “Great!” I don’t care! To me it’s an interesting texture.

The problem with recording in the 1980s… well I guess it really started in the 1970s … as recording technology got better things were not legitimate unless they were recorded at the state of the art. It totally robbed the music texturally. To me, lo-fi more accurately recreates how music really sounds when you’re hearing it. If you’re hearing a band live in a basement it’s making this crazy fuzzy sound. A Walkman sitting in the corner of the room recording someone sitting in the other corner of the room playing acoustic guitar and singing into the room more accurately represents [the sound of music] than someone sitting in a studio and being very clinically captured with expensive microphones and direct boxes.

When I started doing my four-track recordings, I thought it sounded pretty good. I was a little bit shocked, because there were people who were like, “Who the fuck do you think you are?” [laughs] I mean, people were angry! [Mock angry voice] “Well, great, you took these songs and you ruined them!”

It doesn’t bother me when people say, “Oh, they’re trying to sound lo-fi.” I’m like, “Great!”

The people I worked with were very disdainful of handing a cassette to somebody and saying, “Hey, I wanna make a record out of this.” It was kind of a radical concept, apparently.

I can say that when I first heard Sebadoh’s Bakesale in high school, it was an inspiring feeling. I mean, my friends and I could listen to Van Halen, but it didn’t sound like music that had anything to do with us. But when we listened to Bakesale, the songs all felt like a lot of fun. It also just sounded much more like how we would sound when we played music together. So I think the lo-fi sound can be creatively stimulating too.

Yeah that’s how I felt when I was discovering rock. Like Jimi Hendrix… wow… where do you go from there?!

That didn’t inspire me. I mean I loved it, and it was absolutely the greatest music ever captured. But when I heard the Ramones, that was it… it just made sense to me. So when I started to make music, I just remembered my initial reaction to the Ramones after years of listening to Pink Floyd and going, “Really? I understand why it’s the greatest thing ever, and I understand why they’ve been on the charts for 10 years, I guess or whatever, because of Dark Side of the Moon,” but I was missing that element of feeling really excited and inspired by it. And I was also missing the part where it was speaking to me.

I felt pretty strongly that when I made records I would make them with the idea of speaking to someone like myself rather than speaking down to an audience or speaking out to some great hall of fame.

I’ve been reading your tweets while recording the new Dinosaur Jr. album. How is that process going?

This’ll be the third record we’ve made since we reunited, and we’ve been reunited for the last seven years now. We’ve done each recording in J’s attic. He has a great recording setup in his attic and all kinds of amazing gear. We’re just doing it the same way as we did the last two, which is sit together in his attic and bash these songs until they kind of take shape. I have more songs this time, and I understand what I have to do to get my songs in there now.

I saw an interview you did with ABC a couple years ago, and you were pretty forthcoming with the fact that relations between J Mascis and yourself were always awkward and you had sort of learned to work within the awkwardness. Have things changed at all with time?
It was pretty easy at first and then it got really hard, and now it seems to be getting easy again. I think the thing with J is that he’s not a very flexible person. Depending on my mood I’m really angry about that or I’m totally cool with it [laughs]. I’m kind of at the point where I realize it depends on me.

But he’s been making small steps towards making things a little easier for people around him as the years go by. I recognize the effort he takes to do that, and that makes it a little easier too. It’s not like he’s totally inflexible. It’s not that bad [laughs].

I noticed when I listened to the song “Mr. Genius Eyes” from Weed Forestin’ that some of the spoken-word lyrics sound like they could have been relating you’re your relationship with J. For example, “I should be free to be what I am, as you should to have what you need. If you see what you need in me then you can’t have what you need. It’s not fair to expect that from me because that’s not what I am. You think I reject you but I never wanted to hurt you…”

Oh, it’s absolutely about J. There’s no doubt about it. I’m not even gonna fuckin’ lie about it, that’s totally it [laughs].

He was just this enormous figure to me at the time – he was a genius! He was fucking writing these incredible songs… in his mind all this shit was coming together and I was just kind of following in his wake. But he was just really not into me. So I’m with this person and really creatively wrapped up in what he’s doing and in love with him as a creative being. I’m watching him blossom – I had known him since he was 16 years old. When he hit 18 and picked up a guitar it just went through the roof. I was just trying to hold on.

It was like, how can I hold on to this situation without losing my mind? Because he was really… just fuckin’ tough. He was a tough guy to hang out with because he was pretty cruel. It was amazing; he could just fuckin’ cut you down and leave you there. I wanted so desperately to hold on to him because of what I was experiencing creatively and how amazing it was, but emotionally I wanted to survive it.

So a lot of those songs are writing to explain something to myself that he himself couldn’t explain to me. I’m putting myself in his position and explaining it to myself so I could just hold on and make it through what was a really tough period… [so as] not to feel totally emotional rejected and devastated by the whole situation. Not squashed, basically. I was in a precarious situation of either having all my confidence stomped out of me or figuring out a way to hold on to what I knew was good about what I did and how it could become better.

The people I worked with were very disdainful of handing a cassette to somebody and saying, “Hey, I wanna make a record out of this.” It was kind of a radical concept, apparently.

I had a chance to catch Sebadoh on your recent “Bakesale/Harmacy” tour. Now that you and Jason Loewentein have more or less reunited, are you planning on writing new songs?

We will be soon. We have some time set aside in April to get together for the express purpose of hashing out new material. We never really broke up. Jason Lowenstein and I did the first Sebadoh in 1991 […] as a duo playing some of the Weed Forestin’ songs. We’ve kept it together ever since then. There were periods when people wouldn’t really come see us play so we didn’t go out . . [laughs] when we knew we weren’t wanted we would take a break.

This last [tour], Jason’s partner, Bob D’amico, who’s been playing drums with Jason for over a decade, stepped in on drums and we’ve hit this really awesome period. The tours we did last year were great I thought.

It seems like Sebadoh has a much more “good vibes” culture.

Yeah, from the very beginning. I knew when I started Sebadoh that it was going to be different than Dinosaur Jr. Not to say that there was no leader, because somebody has to make the phone calls, I guess, but more or less a democracy. Sebadoh was just always going to be fun. I did the Dinosaur thing earlier on [with] J’s very oppressive [attitude of], “Nothing’s good enough! I’m not having fun! I’m bummed and I’m hungry!”

Fuck it! [laughs] After that experience, I was like, if I get on the road and I’m in a van with my friends again, we’re gonna be having a good time. We’re putting our best foot forward in terms of how we experience it. There were a lot of crazy, awful Sebadoh shows that we played but I have to say that the overall vibe of the band has always been to have a good time.

  

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